“Cowtown,” a song Carly Simon has written for Another Passenger, tells the story of a cagey French woman named Simone Swann who marries a Texas millionaire for his money, and because she’s lonely. In the second verse, Swann prepares to accompany the Texan to his native land, and Simon notes:
She packed up all her perfume
For the gusty pioneer
On a carefree note he said “forget your coat
There’s a chill about every ten years.”
The use of the word “gusty” here is a small revelation, and the phrasing of the “carefree note” is perfect. This is the sort of lucid, humorous and concise observation for which Randy Newman, say, would be praised to the skies. I’ll venture a guess that Carly Simon won’t be huzzahed for her verbal dexterity and wit, however. If past reviews are any indication, a goodly number of her notices will consist of arch compliments of the gams displayed on the back cover.
Another Passenger is Carly Simon’s best record. The sniffs of “So what?” that that assertion may provoke are exactly what Simon is confronting with this album. Her tenure with producer Richard Perry left many with the feeling that she had given herself over to his very particular musical vision, and the music that resulted — ephemeral and repetitive for the most part — was more Perry’s failure than Simon’s. Whether that impression is accurate or not, it is an embarrassingly obvious example of the cliché of a woman allowing herself to be manipulated by a man or men who know “better,” or more, than she.
This also represents a misunderstanding of Simon’s modus operandi. Throughout her career she has surrounded herself with those whom she hopes to use (and I mean “use” in its best and worst senses — employing someone’s talents and manipulating that person’s talents to one’s own ends) to articulate a world view that has never been prominent in popular music; i.e., what it’s like to be a very attractive, independent, upper-class woman.
Prominent among those used people are men: Perry, whose lush slickness impressed her as a good musical equivalent to her lyrical glides; writer Jacob Brackman, whose arch irony suited her Joan Didion-ish despair; and James Taylor, whose sleepy folky sexiness offset her crackling urban eroticism. Passenger relinquishes Perry, opting for Ted Templeman, and uses Taylor mainly as a backup vocalist.
In addition to the aforementioned “Cowtown,” the finest song she has written, equally entertaining are a pair of Simon/Brackman compositions, the loping, slick “Half a Chance” and a tropical thumper (via Van Dyke Parks’s arrangement), “Darkness ‘Til Dawn.” The duo’s other offering, “Riverboat Gambler,” is precious in the way Brackman’s writing often becomes without a hefty slice of Simon’s down-to-earthiness. The only glaring failure here is “Libby,” an overlong banality.
Doobie Brothers Jeff Baxter and Mike McDonald are omnipresent to great effect. Simon has chosen to record the strongest song on the Doobies’ latest album, “It Keeps You Runnin’,” and her smoky, tough vocal even manages to improve it.
True, Carly Simon has produced a lot of average music, but what is more important is that she has never abandoned her original themes, something she might easily have done at any time. Simon is not a very original songwriter. Her melodies are similar; often her lyrics seem as if she had not worked very hard at them, taking the first clever rhyme that came to mind. But at her best she conveys the monied angst of the leisured with moving conviction, something no one else has ever done. Additionally, she is always further explicating and enhancing an exploration of her ego and her sexuality. It is extraordinary for a woman to say without a speck of self-consciousness or irony, as she does here on “In Times When My Head,” that she “Know[s] none could compare with me/In my airy skirts and cool retreats.”
This may not seem like much to radical prose writers, but it is still jolting stuff for pop music.